Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is something that I only recently learnt about. I was aware that people practice different forms of sword fighting, and in fact I did a little fencing myself when I was younger, but little did I know that there is a thriving, passionate community of people fighting in a similar way that I am in the martial arts that I practice.
Where there are martial arts, there are women martial artists – and HEMA is no exception. There are thousands of women who practise across the world, mastering historical weapons such as the federschwert, messer, dagger or shortsword. Others engage in historical grappling sports such as Ringen – a German wrestling sport from the Late Middle Ages and German Renaissance periods. What makes these martial arts specifically ‘HEMA’ is that the martial arts they practice are based on historical texts from past centuries of old methods of fighting or combat that may have either gone extinct or contributed to the formation of the contemporary martial arts we see today.
Determined to find out more about women who practice HEMA, I found Esfinges (Spanish for sphinxes) – a dedicated international network for women in HEMA, founded by women HEMA practitioners. They provide a space for women to ask questions and read about others’ experiences within HEMA. They also host a variety of awesome live events, including competitions and regular training sessions.
I’m excited to share with you all my interview with two of Esfinges’ founders: Mariana and Fran. Their love for what they do, and their drive to make HEMA a place that is inclusive and encouraging of women fighters, is inspirational and crucially important.
First of all, would you be able to tell us a few lines about yourselves?
Mariana: My name is Mariana, I am from Mexico but I’ve been living in the USA for over a year now, I’m 27 years old, and a recent college graduate in International Relations (my love), painter and graphic designer (my hobby) and HEMA-ist for the past 10 years! (my passion). I currently work as a Fencing Instructor and freelance designer.
Mariana from Esfinges
Fran from Esfinges
How did you first get into HEMA? Where and how did it all begin for you both?
Mariana: I was on my search for an appealing martial art, at that time during a ren-fair (Renaissance Fair) I saw a group doing stage combat and I remember saying out loud how I wish swordfighting were an actual martial art. A person behind me (who had been in the USA and learned about HEMA almost by accident) told me it was. My friends and I hired him for a workshop alongside several people from the ren-fair. Both my club (founded by me and my brother) and another 4 clubs were founded afterwards (being the first HEMA clubs in existence in Mexico as far as I’m aware!)
Fran: When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband Pim and I went to a re-enactment event (similar to USA ren fairs) where Schola Gladiatoria had a stand running small tournaments with LARP (live-action role playing games) swords and light gear. He thought this was great fun and they gave him a flyer, but it was a bit too far and we were about to have our first child so it went on the back burner. Just over two years later when my son was born, Pim looked up HEMA and found that there was a school near us. My parents agreed to have the kids for an evening and I would take him along. I sat and watched his first class, then enthused about it to my parents when I got back. They told me I should do it too – having been nothing but a mother for two years straight, and they were right!
What attracted you both to HEMA as opposed to say, karate or judo? Was the historical element particularly important for you?
Mariana: It was a combination of several things, the lack of “personal space” in the martial arts I had tried wasn’t very appealing to me at the time, and the concept of rank exams in front of an audience was too stressing on my teenager over-conscious self. On the other hand I had always had a love for history, the romance behind knights and the excitement of understanding how so many of this weapons that looked so impractical to me (like pole arms) were actually used. So as soon as I had the offer to try it, it was impossible for me to say no, and as soon as I started – I simply couldn’t stop.
Fran: The history and the scholarship was definitely a big draw. There lies a key difference between learning what sensei tells you to do, or smashing one another with steel or foam weapons…and focusing on what the fencing masters centuries ago were trying to achieve – you want to get it right, and you want to be authentic. It draws you in on several levels.
As HEMA practitioners, what role do you play in telling the history of the martial arts you practice? Do you sometimes see yourselves as ‘historians’ of sorts?
Mariana: I think more than historians we are a mix of storytellers, archeologist and time travellers. Translating and interpreting the manuals and making them work, having to think not only on a sense of what works mechanically but also keeping in mind the historical context making us dig into how people lived back then, to the point ancient people are no longer “these strange people of the past” but more like “just another person but without the Internet or pens”. On the other hand it also builds a connection to other cultures; We might not be as similar as some Asian martial arts, but we are not that different either, the human body only moves a certain way.
Fran: It’s important to me to explain to new students at my school that we are teaching as closely as we can the same material that was being given to students just like themselves over 400 years ago. I get the books out on day one, and get them taking notes – the books are the link between them and those people who studied under Marozzo and Manciolino all those years ago.
I know that sometimes roleplaying/cosplaying is a big part in how people interact with and get into HEMA. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with role playing? Do you think it has contributed to your relationship with the martial arts you practice?
Mariana: That’s… An interesting question. HEMA has had a long bipolar “fight” when it comes to how we relate to geek culture. Roleplay/cosplay/larp etc., all of those things are “games”. HEMA is not, yet it used to be commonly confused, so through its evolution HEMA has had a hard time to establish itself as a Martial Art and Sport (let’s not forget we have tournaments) that it is. Nowadays I believe that the distinction is properly establish, and while it still causes me to twitch when someone ask me if HEMA armored fencing is the same as LARP or BOTN for example (which are perfectly fine activities! Just not what we do!) now it’s a lot more easy to show people material for them to really understand the differences between these activities.
That being said, a lot of us enjoy or have backgrounds or have gained a lot of students through roleplay/cosplay/larp, etc. So while we want to make it clear we are not the same, we welcome everyone!
Fran: I play tabletop RPGs: D&D and call of Cthulhu, but the only link for me is that a lot of HEMA people are equally as nerdy and it’s something we often have in common. I am keen to not blur the lines between re-enactment/cosplay/HEMA etc – from the outside they all seem to be the same thing anyway, so defining HEMA as a study in historical swordplay rather than a chance to dress up is necessary in my opinion. Otherwise it detracts from the task before us.
That said, having taught a lot of newbies from different backgrounds I have developed a keen eye for what makes a good beginner – and LARPists are often the best, particularly those who have done a lot of foam weapon fighting. They have excellent timing and movement, and a real urgency that is necessary in martial arts.
Moving onto Esfinges! You guys are the first female network for HEMA women practitioners. That’s amazing! What made you feel that you needed to start this network?
Fran: I got on board shortly after Mariana came up with the idea, I will let her speak about her experiences and why she felt it was necessary to begin. I personally thought it would just be fun to get all the women in HEMA together and make new friends, but as time has gone on I’m learning more and more that our work is vital for the growth and proliferation of HEMA, and the continuation of women in historical martial arts.
Mariana: I will do my best to keep this story short, but no promises:
Back in the day, when HEMA was young and I lived on my cloud of happiness running my own club and knowing pretty much everyone in the community, This girl called Ruth told me it would be cool to make a Facebook group with all the women in HEMA in Mexico, and who knows, maybe talk about what hairstyle is best to keep your hair away from the fencing mask, etc. She needed my help as I pretty much knew almost everyone, and she didn’t. I though the idea to be entirely idiotic, absurd, and ridiculous. Few months after I went to my first international HEMA event, and in a crowd of 60 people, only 4 of us were women. For the first time I was conscious of this disparity, so I messaged Ruth back and told her I would be onboard as long as we made it international, so together we created Esfinges. I wanted to know why there were so few of us! After some time Ruth found her passion to be elsewhere and left, but I now had too many questions to just drop the project.
I started paying attention every time I invited women to training sessions, and I realized there were a lot of taboos and stigmas from society about women doing fighting activities, and I couldn’t stand it. Without going through names I started noticing absurd situations where women had to quit HEMA because of boyfriends threatening to leave them if they didn’t stop training because they couldn’t stand seeing their girlfriends with bruises. A girl left HEMA after 3 years of practicing because her parents offered her a new car as long as she quit HEMA and joined a “real women” activity like dancing. Women who were interested but “they were women so they wouldn’t be able to do it anyways” and women who loved it but got tired of all the stigma and treatment they got from the “outside world” about them doing HEMA.
To date my main goal with Esfinges is to have a tool to make clear and loud to the non-HEMA world that women (any woman! Girly, manly, queer, big, small, religious, atheist, etc.) CAN AND WILL DO HEMA, and that we kick ass at it. I want us to break the stigma about what is a female activity and what is a male activity, and I want us to provide a space in which women feel identified with and welcome, so if they happen to have to deal with the outside world telling them they can’t do this, they gather enough strength for them not to quit, and show the world they can! And they do it pretty darn well!
In all honesty, I never thought this would get so big, and we ended up dealing with more projects and needs than what I first planed, and while I still hope for the day Esfinges is no longer needed (I aim for it to not exist anymore one day). Right now it has become a monster. But I see it as my baby monster, so I’ll stick to it!
I think support networks for women martial artists are very important, whether you’re practicing HEMA, or a martial art like Brazilian Jiu jitsu. It’s a way for women to know that they’re not alone, and that there are many women out there who share or have been through their experiences (both positive and negative). Have you seen this happen through Esfinges? Could you tell us a story that stands out to you about women who have connected through Esfinges?
Fran: The stories that touch me most deeply in Esfinges are the private messages and posts we see from those who have wanted to quit, but found the strength and the will to continue – or found a better environment – thanks to us. Plenty of women find what they are looking for in HEMA – and they are very lucky – but there are plenty who have adverse experiences, because of club environments, relationships with other students and instructors, or just plain old sexism. And it’s a testament to their passion and enthusiasm for HEMA that they don’t just walk away – many do. There are a lot of hurdles for women to overcome to get started on a HEMA career, and they don’t disappear once they’re started. Often we find we are the lifeline, and I don’t use that word lightly, that allows them to stay in HEMA. We are the hundreds of supporting voices that believe in them when it feels like nobody else will.
Mariana: Adding to what Fran said, I will talk more on women on the “outside” of HEMA. I love when women are interested but not sure they can practice HEMA, then they find Esfinges and realize there’s nothing extraordinary about the people who practice HEMA, they are people like them. Students, workers, stay at home parents, regardless of religion, regardless of skin color, size, sexuality, gender identity etc. So then they finally feel the bravery to go to their first HEMA class, and join. I’ve been amazed to realize that Esfinges has been inspirational not only to women but to other minorities and how it allows people to see the value of having more women in their clubs and learn how to be more welcoming and inclusive.
On the other hand, what hurts me the most is seeing women who even while already in HEMA, they are so feed up with what society has told them, that they feel unworthy of being good, they doubt too much when they have the chance to be instructors and coaches, or when they feel they know and could do more but don’t have the strength to go or ask for it. We don’t see enough women instructors not only because there’s not many women doing HEMA, and there’s even less who had done it for a long time, but also because many, during their entire lives were never told they could be bold, strong, capable leaders or that they are as important and deserve as much respect as anyone else in the room (the saddest part is knowing I have been in all those positions myself). It’s especially hard and common when clubs have new members and there’s every now and then, or very often depending in which country you live, this one guy who don’t want to train with you or teach you because you are a woman and that to their eyes, means you’re less capable.
How do women experience HEMA? What are some of the boundaries you’ve both encountered training in HEMA?
Mariana: I started my own club with my brother, so when it came to my club and my environment, I was always welcome, however it was very hard for me when I had people who were onboard to come train to our club and as soon as they figured I was one of the instructors they left. However my brother gave me a great lesson.
Once upon a time, one (big) guy arrived in class for the first time, he said out loud he didn’t wanted to work with me because he didn’t want to hurt me. After telling him I had 5 years of experience he proceed to say “but you are a woman” my brother came to me and told me “I want you to go, throw him, throw him as hard as you can, just beat him and have no mercy” and so I did. In fact, this happened many, many times. The result was one of 2: they learned the lesson and treated women with respect and fight them as they would fight anyone else, or they left the club that same day. That day I learned that while there are boundaries, we are the ones who allow them to stay or force them to leave.
I’ve been told the only reason I achieved things in HEMA was for “being pretty and cute”, I’ve been told women shouldn’t fence men, I’ve been told that my opponent were “easy on me” if I won a fight. Outside I’ve been told that “no man would ever date me” as long as I practiced HEMA (joke’s on them, I have an amazing husband!) In college one guy started to harass me because of the fact I did martial arts, to the point he tried to forcefully kiss me to prove I wasn’t going to be able to defend myself ( I smashed the back of his head against the wall… he never got close to me again 😉 ) Even my parents got comments from other people for letting me do HEMA!!!! Worst of all, I’ve believed those things myself…. And so many other things…. But as my brother taught me, every time I find a boundary I go, throw it, throw it as hard as I can and just beat the boundary with no mercy.
But that being said, it is necessary to state: none of those bad experiences compare to the fulfilling experience, the personal growth, the achievements, the joy, and the love HEMA has brought me. Where some might be sexist and stupid and unfortunately loud, there is also a welcoming, loving encouraging community built by women, men, queer people and just about anyone who wants to join it. Full of diversity, beauty and most importantly: FULL OF SWORDS!!!
Fran: I had the best start in HEMA as a woman, because the founder and head instructor of my school was a woman. Caroline Stewart was my role model and now I’m a leader at the school I feel it’s my responsibility to be a role model to others. That said, even as a woman in a leadership role, with 8 years of experience as a competitor, instructor and organiser; even with a spouse who is world renowned as both a competitor, instructor and researcher, I still experience sexism. Whether it’s being undermined for being a woman instructor, or even sexually harassed, or just battling the voices in my head telling me I shouldn’t be doing this…those boundaries are real. And that’s as someone speaking from a position of privilege, so it’s my strongest passion to kick those boundaries away whenever I see them. HEMA is an overwhelmingly white and cis-male hobby, it can also be a very macho hobby – a place full of very strong masculinity. That is something that can be attractive to all the sexes, but if it is a dangerous and toxic masculinity, it can be very excluding and damaging.
Do you feel that you’ve been able to overcome these boundaries? And if so, how did you do it?
Mariana: I don’t know if I’ve been able to overcome them entirely, but I’ve learn to challenge them, I’ve learned that for every time I believe I’m not capable I need to try. For every time I feel like crying because I’m afraid to hit someone, I need to go and hit them even if I have tears in my eyes. For every time I want to put the word “women” on my fails, I need to remember it’s a failure that humans – regardless of gender – have had before me. I’ve learned that there’s no way for me to know if I can do HEMA or not, If I don’t do HEMA. And that I will never been able to know if I am good enough, if I don’t train as much and as hard as I can. And that I won’t know if I can’t inspire others, if I don’t try to inspire others.
I try to put into actions what I believe in. To remove the excuses society placed for me to be lazy and to make of any environment I’m involved into an environment that breaths inclusivity and openness. Breaking boundaries can be achieved by simple things that seem dumb, from changing that one flyer promoting your club by having a woman instead of a man, (or a woman and a man!). By cutting through social taboos and talking openly to your students about how cramps and periods and hormonal changes can affect your training instead of talking about it as a deep dark secret only with the female students. Sure, there are more “complicated” actions that can be taken, but no big goal is reached without tiny steps. And those tiny steps will show you what’s next.
However the most important part for me to break boundaries is: talk to people, ask questions, and open your ears and your heart, challenge everything. Many people creates or perpetuates toxic attitudes not because they are inherently bad, but because that’s what they were taught all their lives, because they don’t know other ways, or they don’t even realize they are being damaging because they don’t live our lives or feel our experiences. We must learn to be approachable and to approach others. Ask first, then Listen, Ask again, Listen again, and then make your argument. Every now and then things get solved not by telling our needs, but by explaining to others where those needs come from and why we have them.
Remember how I was surrounded by an environment in which I was questioned for doing HEMA? Those same people, that same environment, has been transformed into a group of people who believe women can and should do this if they want. Minds are not solid, everything can change.
Fran: My current issue with the HEMA community at large is lack of women instructors at events. I saw two events in the UK recently where one had 2 female instructors out of 40 (and everyone was white, able bodied, straight and cis as far as I know, but that’s another issue), and another which had zero women teaching. By my estimate we have approximately 20% women in the HEMA community, so this isn’t even representative of us as a community, let alone as the human race. My quiet protest is to put on events with only women instructors – not as a gimmick or anything drawing attention to that fact, just trying to redress the balance.
People have said “women just aren’t interested in HEMA”, this patently is not true, far from it. Last year on Esfinges’ public page we ran a month-long event called Give a Girl A Sword (GAGAS). We have run this in previous years and the idea is everyone brings at least one female friend or relative along with them to class, so they can try HEMA for the first time – and hopefully keep going. This time people took it a step further: several clubs around the world – from Chile to the Philippines, Spain and the UK – ran women’s beginner classes. In several cases that I know of they were completely overwhelmed by the response. One club in Chile was expecting around twenty women, and they got over a hundred. A club in London had to put on several extra nights to cope with the demand. So quite simply, representation matters – and if you market HEMA to women, they will come, in ARMIES.
As founders of such an important network, how has Esfinges changed your lives? Has it impacted the way that you train?
Fran: I strive for parity in beginners courses, in instructor quotas, in competitions. I am enthusiastic about open lines of communication, about mentorship, I encourage my female students to discover their hidden talents, to be their true selves, and to encourage other women. The women that take the brave step of starting HEMA deserve all the support they can get, so they can show others that it can be done.
Mariana: Now more than ever I care about being inclusive and to build healthy environments and break preconceived ideas or “who’s more capable” and “who’s more talented”, if I run an event, I make sure it’s clear and loud that it’s an activity for everyone. As Fran said, strive for parity and encourage people to reach the best of their capabilities. I want to create an environment in which everyone supports everyone, women and men equally, where there’s a constant understanding and dialogue. Were we no longer feel threatened or questioned or judge what we decide to do with our lives or on how we perform for no other reason than our gender.
Esfinges was a blessing and a curse, I now live in a constant awareness of my environment, but I now have tools to work with different environments and working and learning on building them to be better.
And finally, what advice would you give to other women looking to start in HEMA?
Mariana: Just do it, all you need to practice HEMA is wanting to practice HEMA. And once you try it, if you didn’t like it – was it because of HEMA itself, or something else? If the answer is the second reason, then do it again, differently, elsewhere. You don’t have to be good, you don’t have to be great, and you just have to enjoy it. Talent, athleticism, capability comes with time and practice. If there’s no one to teach you in the near area, research, find a seminar, start on your own. When there’s a will, there’s most likely a way, and people willing to help you (like us!).
Fran: Try it out, see if you can find a club near you – if there are several try them all. Every club culture is different and you will find one that suits you best. It’s not just about the weapon being studied. When I ran By the Sword in March (an all-women’s event with all women instructors) we had a Q&A panel with all of the instructors and someone asked a similar question. The main thing I would say to those women, and to the voices in the heads of those women is “you deserve to be here”. You deserve to be here as much as the tall athletic guy who wins all the medals, you deserve to be here as much as the veteran who has been teaching for decades, you deserve to be here as much as the instructor running the class. Find your tribe.
If you’re interested in starting in HEMA, or are curious about Esfinges, visit their website here.
All images in this post are taken from Esfinges’ gallery, or directly from Fran and Mariana. http://esfinges.net/gallery/